Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Medieval Death

Part of life in the Middle Ages is death in the Middle Ages.  Modern society essentially deals with death through denial.  "As long as I eat healthy and exercise, nothing bad will happen to me."  Most people die in the hospital, accompanied by last ditch efforts to give them a few more moments of life.

Humans haven't figured out yet what to do about death.  The medieval response, not being able to deny it as we do, was heart-breaking:  they embraced death.

This did not mean they wanted to die, because they didn't.  But they insisted, loudly and repeatedly, that death was good.  You could go to heaven, be reborn in an improved version of your own body, and be very happy.  The saints were dead, but that didn't keep them from being an active part of people's lives.

Alternately, of course, you could go to Hell.  Just as most modern Christians don't worry very much about Hell, most medieval people didn't either, unless they realized they had committed some major sin or were actually dying.  Priests tried to remind them, and the frequency and enthusiasm with which they were reminded suggests few were paying attention.

The requiem mass included the "Dies irae," a poem about God's wrath and begging for mercy.  It's a terrific poem, with a strong melody, composed by an unknown author, incorporated shamelessly into more recent Requiems such as Mozart's and Verdi's.

Dies irae, dies illa,
Favet saeclum in favilla,
Sicut David et Sibilla.

That's the first verse.  It basically can't be translated into English.  In translation it goes, "Day of wrath, on that day, Heaven and earth shall pass away, as David and the Sybil say."  See what I mean?  (The Sybil was a Greek prophetess who, a couple of centuries AD, was supposed to have predicted all the events of the New Testament.)

But in practice medieval Christianity asserted that the dead were not in Hell but were their friends.  This was very different from pagan Rome, which feared the dead and made sure to bury them outside the city walls, so they couldn't sneak in at night.  Above is an image of a sarcophagus, a stone coffin from the early Middle Ages.  Hand-carved from a single piece of stone, a sarcophagus probably cost as much as we'd pay for a Buick.  And it was not just the elite who wanted such a coffin.  Medieval churches were surrounded by them and often built literally over dozens of sarcophagi in their crypts.

Click here for more on medieval Christianity.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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